How to Be a Good Reviewer

A few weeks ago, I was in a rut. With graduation approaching in a few months, I started to feel very fearful. Those fears also led to a bit of existential drama. Mostly this involved trashing my project (and my career in general) as meaningless.

Some good talks with my Dissertation Support Group, classmates, and advisors cheered me up and re-engaged me in my work. It got me to thinking about how one can offer useful advice on other people’s writing.

  • Instead of simply making marginal notes, write a letter to the writer explaining your thoughts about their work.
  • Even if you have fifty separate suggestions for improving the draft, prioritize them and break them down into three or four clear, digestible points. For example, say “the most important thing you need to do next is cut unnecessary information.” I prefer to relate these points to one of the four cycles of revision–thesis, organization, evidence, and clarity. Break down for the writer what types of problems they should focus on.
  • Give very specific examples of the type of problems you note. Saying “I really don’t get your point” is colossally unhelpful and potentially debilitating. Re-read the draft and point out sentences that made you feel like you might be getting it, and paragraphs where you felt the most lost. Or, in the above example of the writer needing to trim the draft, underline evidence that you feel could be cut.
  • Summarize what you think the writer did well, and praise them for any progress made since previous drafts.
  • Give your feedback both in written form and face-to-face. It can be hard to remember what someone said in a conversation (and I know my own notes from those meetings are often puzzling when I revisit them). At the same time, written comments may be misunderstood and sometimes don’t pack as much punch as face-to-face feedback.
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